What You Need to Know About Waterspouts on the Great Lakes

Posted: October 18, 2021 12:22 pm

It is the time of the year when waterspouts become more commonplace over the Great Lakes. The rapidly changing weather patterns of the fall season lead to these tornadoes that form over bodies of water. Here is what you need to know about this complex weather phenomenon and what you can do if you are near one to protect yourself.

Two Types of Waterspouts

There are two primary types of waterspouts. While some of these spouts naturally form when supercell thunderstorms are in the area, others inexplicably pop up during calm conditions, earning the name of “fair weather waterspouts.” This type of waterspout seemingly comes out of nowhere, even when skies are blue and winds are calm.

Fair weather waterspouts can happen at any time of the year. However, because of the unique weather conditions during the late summer and fall months, it is more likely that they will occur within this time frame in the Great Lakes. As the cold air from Canada begins its annual track to the south, this chilly air hangs over the lakes that are still warm from the summer temperatures.

As a result of the warm water and cool air masses colliding, a layer of unstable conditions can form on the top of the lakes. This unstable atmosphere brings up precipitation that eventually forms the puffy cumulus clouds that can trigger random waterspouts. This happens as the winds begin to swirl and create these funnels of condensation.

Supercell Thunderstorm Waterspouts

In contrast, waterspouts that erupt from supercell thunderstorms form at the bottom of the clouds and expand down rather than forming at the surface of the lakes moving upward. While fair weather waterspouts generally occur in a vacuum with little to no other hazardous conditions in the area, thunderstorm waterspouts can be accompanied by damaging wind gusts, lightning, and hail.

In order for supercell thunderstorms to take place, there needs to be a high amount of moisture in the air. Even for locations as far north as the Great Lakes region, the necessary moisture components can travel up from the Gulf of Mexico.

In addition to copious amounts of moisture, supercell thunderstorm activity needs a shifting of the wind conditions with an increase in the height of the shear. The air then needs to lift upwards and find a layer of unstable atmosphere in order to thrive.

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When all of these conditions come together, it is possible for the supercell thunderstorms that create waterspouts to take root.

What to do if You are Caught on the Water During this Weather Phenomenon

Many people underestimate the threat of waterspouts because they do not occur over land such as a traditional tornado. However, it can be dangerous if you are caught out on the water when a waterspout forms. These waterspouts have the potential of flipping over watercraft and creating life-threatening conditions on the water.

If you are out on a boat, it is important that you always have access to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio broadcast. You can check this broadcast regularly to see if there have been any marine warnings issued for your area. It is a good habit to check these forecasts before you head out on the Great Lakes so that you know what to be prepared for.

Despite your best intentions to stay safe, a waterspout can form out of nowhere. If you happen to see one form while you are out on the water, make an attempt to turn your watercraft perpendicular to the path of the waterspout and move away from the direction of the feature.

Becoming familiar with what types of clouds are most likely to create fair weather waterspouts is also a good skill to have. These clouds generally present with a dark and flat base. Staying away from clouds that take on this appearance is a good practice when out on the water.

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